What to do in a thunder and lightning storm while kayaking (in Newburyport or elsewhere!)

26 06 2009

We really wanted to kayak today but the weather forecast did not cooperate. We tried to play meteorologist, but even we couldn’t argue with the huge mass of weather that was approaching us. Boo. That made us start to poke around for more information about what we would do if we were kayaking and got caught in a thunder and lightning storm. Most websites offer helpful information like “avoid the water” and “don’t be in a boat with no cabin.” Gee, really?

OK – so say you checked the weather in a super conservative and responsible way (none of that “I think we can make it” business) and out of nowhere, a random storm strikes up. Then what?

I (Hannah) did a bunch of research online and found a fair amount of thoughts on this — from forums, first hand accounts and some generally reputable sources. NOAA has some good info which details what to do in a thunder and lightning storm in various ‘real life’ kind of scenarios when you’re outside in general (very little about boating though). I also like this National Geographic article — it has a neat map of where strikes occur most often, good science-y info about how lightning works and “flash facts” (cute, guys.) This article about kayaking and lightning, written by someone affiliated with the Minnesota Canoe Association, is also one of the more informative ones I found.

In summary, I guess if I were in Plum Island Sound, and heard thunder, I’d get to shore and try to get in a car. If I were not near my car, but near a road, I’d flag down a car for help. (Any port in a storm, as they say.) If that didn’t work, I’d crouch in a ditch or near one of the forested areas with trees/shrubs of uniform height and pray. If I were in my ‘yak, couldn’t get to land and could see lightning near, I would stay at least 20 ft. away from Patrick or any other paddlers. I’d hunch down low and I’d not touch my paddle (but not lose it.)

Here are some more takeaways from hours of poking around…as always, I would point out that this is a result of my own research and I’m not a professional and would always tell you not to risk it:

1. Make every, every effort to not be on the water when a storm is predicted. It will be painful sometimes, but not as painful as the potential alternative.  Look at the Doppler radar maps, use the map in motion (marked “future”) and get a really good read on what’s going on. Be conservative. If the storm is a long way away and you think it’ll be ok, consider a short paddle and staying close to shore.

2. If you hear any distant thunder — start paddling like mad to land to get off the water. Whatever safe looking shore it is, no matter what it’s marked. Even if it’s an unmarked dock in the Potomac…which one of my sister’s friends discovered while canoeing in a storm and looking to get off the water. After being surround by men with guns, taken into custody and searched…it turns out he had stumbled on an unmarked base where Air Force One planes are stored. He was released unharmed and with quite a story.

3. If you can, get to a house with plumbing and electricity or inside a car . Ideally, be in a shelter with plumbing or wiring or some other mechanism for grounding from the roof to ground. (Picnic or beach shelters don’t fit this description – a car would be better than those.) And once inside, NOAA says “stay away from showers, sinks, hot tubs, and electronic equipment you are directly connected to such as corded telephones and computers.” On the car front, NOAA is pretty adamant about not using electronic devices — I assume that includes cell phones. It also gives examples of “safe and unsafe vehicles” – ideally a metal, enclosed car. And remember, don’t get on a riding mower to protect yourself (it really says that.)

4. If you can’t get inside something and lightning is very close, look for a low point with uniform height trees (not near a tall isolated object) and crouch/squat low, ideally on the balls of your feet. Avoid being in clearings or next to single trees or tall objects (especially metal ones). That article from the Minnesota paddling pro said to look for “uniform shrubs or trees of uniform height” — though people argue about standing near trees. Basically you don’t want to be near — or be — the tallest thing in the area. And that “lightning crouch” is key if lightning is near (ie, you can see it and/or hair is standing up) and you’re out of options. Don’t lie down, crouch so not much of you is touching the ground. Be far away from your paddle and have a few “body lengths” between all people.

5. If you can’t get to shore, stay at least 20 ft. away from other paddlers and hunker down low. If you have an anchor, deploy it and don’t touch your paddle. Also, I’ve read, don’t leave ropes trailing in the water, don’t touch wet ropes and stay off the cell phones or radios unless it’s a dire emergency. This whole ‘what to do if you are in a boat and caught’ is still the toughest area for me to sort out. Since I don’t have an anchor, I’m still a little unsure of whether to paddle or not while I’m gettin’ low, since carbon fiber apparently does conduct electricity and that’s what my paddle is made of. I guess if I could see it really close – I’d lean toward not touching my paddle.  If I could see shore and only hear a storm, I’d be paddling my tush off.

6. If god forbid, someone is struck — follow all normal rescue procedures. IE, call 911, make sure the area is safe for you to enter, administer rescue breathing/CPR, move them to a safer place, etc. And, FYI, you won’t get shocked from the victim – they are not “electrified.”

Other stuff I found:

This was an interesting find — a blog with pics of a kayak hit by lightning while on a car roof rack. Good inspiration for days when you might be feeling like a risk taker and think you might chance it. Don’t do it.

And finally, don’t keep fishing in a storm with that long metal pole (duh — but apparently you need to explain these kinds of things to some Texan fishermen.)

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